the celebration of the deliverance of democracy and decency 2020 slapped us once again alongside
the head. On Monday came word that the long-time host of Jeopardy! Alex Trebek died peacefully
at his home after a valiant and public two year battle with stage 4
pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.
was not just a departed celebrity to
be remembered in the In Memorium reels at the end of the
year and on next year’s Emmy Awards—he
was a cultural icon who was an important part of the lives of so many of us. It was almost a personal relationship that transcended
the separation of the TV screen. I was one of those people, as anyone familiar
with my love of trivia would suspect.
was a fan of the original run of the
show hosted by Art Flemming from the
beginning of its run in 1964 watching it and playing along whenever I was home
from school. When Trebek took over a high-tech remount of the program in syndication twenty years later
I likewise made sure to catch it whenever my work schedule permitted it.
When we finally got a TV with a DVR,
I recorded the shows to watch when I
got off the bus from Woodstock every afternoon. In the two years
of my retirement my daily schedule revolves around the program’s
3:30 air time on Chicago’s Channel 7. I would get mightily annoyed if the show
was preempted by some breaking news lie a mass shooting or chasing the Black Cowboy on his Pinto down Lakeshore Drive. Worse was
when Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s
daily Coronavirus news conferences ran
long. Catastrophically worse was anytime
the Cheeto-in-Charge’s antics were
was still weak and recovering from gall
bladder surgery when Trebek straight forwardly announce that he had stage 4
pancreatic cancer. He was taking the
essentially painful death sentence
with much more equanimity than I had
with my relatively routine recovery.
was born in the working class iron
mining city of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada on July 22, 1940. He was the son of George Edward Trebek,
a chef who had emigrated from Ukraine
as a child, and Lucille Lagacé, a Franco-Canadian. He grew up in a bilingual French-English household. He attended
Sudbury High School (now Sudbury Secondary School) and then
attended the University of Ottawa
from which he graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1961. Later
when asked what he studied in college he joked, “Philosophy—I know why I’m
here.” That background also made him the
poster boy for a Liberal Arts education at a time when
that was under assault.
was first interested in a career in TV
news but before even completing his degree, he began working part time for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1961.
According to Trebek, “I did everything,
at one time replacing every announcer in every possible job.” He would go on to read the CBC national radio news and cover a wide range of special events for CBC Radio and CBC
Television, including curling and horse racing. As Jeopardy! host he always to special delight when curling came up as
an answer or a question.
Twenty-three year old Alex Trebec hosted Music Hop on the CBC.
first hosting job was on the teen dance party a la Dick Clark Music Hop in 1963.His career really took off in In 1966 he
hosted a high school quiz show
called Reach for the Top, a foray into the game show format at which
he was especially adept. Other CBC assignments
were classical music programs
including performances by Glenn Gould,
a weekly skating program and Strategy,
a weekday afternoon game show. Juggling
multiple assignments at once from 1971 until the end of 1972, he hosted I’m
Here Til 9, the local morning
drive radio show on CBC Toronto.
on his success and popularity fellow Canadian Alan Thicke invited him to come to the States in 1973 to host a new NBC TV game
show he produced, The Wizard of Odds. In
those days many game shows came and went ephemerally. His first show lasted only one season by he
quickly followed up with High Rollers (which replaced Wizard), from 1974–1976 and again from 1978–1980,
and Classic Concentration from
1987–1991. He was so popular that he
was the only host with three programs on the air at one time. In addition there were a dizzying array of other shows and two periods when he hosted game shows
in both Canada and the USA.
took particular pride in his work ethic and
boasted in one of his final interviews that he was proud to “have been
employed except for less than six
months” since he came to America. He
might have noted that his string of jobs in Canada was uninterrupted since
1984 came the call that would change his life.
Jeopardy! went a long way
to making creator, erstwhile big band boy singer and TV impresario Merv Griffin one of the richest men in show business.
According to Griffin, he was bemoaning the lack of smart question and answer game shows in the aftermath of the quiz show scandals of the ‘50’s. His wife suggested instead of asking questions, why not give the answers and have the contestants figure out the questions? It was such a good idea that he sold it to NBC without even producing the customary pilot.
picked Art Fleming, a strapping 6’4”
former college football player and World War II Navy dive bomber pilot to
host the show. Fleming had experience as
a radio announcer, TV pitchman—he intoned the famous “Winston
tastes good like a cigarette should” catch
phrase—and middling actor, but had
never hosted a game show. But he was a
natural, both warm and authoritative.
he never missed a show taping on his
watch, which included the NBC daily run from 1964 to 1975, a weekly syndicated
version in ’74 and ’75, and a brief revival in ’78-’79.
the show went off the air for a while, Griffin was constantly asked when it
would come back. In on March 30, 1984 he
launched a new daily syndicated version hosted Trebek,
new version of Jeopardy! became one
of the most successful syndicated programs of all time and is still in production. Trebek matched and surpassed Fleming’s iron man record hosting every scheduled
show for 36 years except for one when he and Pat Sajak of Griffith’s other game show hit Wheel of Fortune swapped
places as an April Fool’s joke.
Over the years the famous answer board became more high tech and the set glitzier. But the answers are still challenging lots of geniuses-on-the-couch, each of whom believes he could become another Ken Jennings—the boyish Utah geek who racked up 74 consecutive games on the show in 2004—if only he or she could somehow get on the show and master the thumb buzzer.
wide experiences; eclectic and compulsive reading; extensive
travel; bilingualism; equal
savviness in academic topics, pop culture, and sports; and innate curiosity made him the perfect fit for the most erudite of TV quizzes. He carefully prepared before each show, reviewing—and sometimes rejecting or re-writing the answers and questions prepared by the show
staff. If he had any doubt or question, he personally researched the issue mostly
using his old-school collection of reference books. On the set he was suave and sophisticated
without ever seeming supercilious or
condescending. He was friendly with his guest contestants and seemed genuinely interested in their lives in conversations behand the scenes and as tape rolled. He had a
genuine, ready wit but tried to keep
the focus on the game and contestants.
typically recorded a week’s worth of
programs—five games—twice a week including regular games, College and teacher
tournaments, celebrity competitions,
and Season Tournament of Champions.
kept up that schedule despite several health
problems—heart attacks in
2007and ’12, an injured Achilles tendon
from chasing a burglar who had entered his San
Francisco hotel room requiring six weeks in a cast, and a subdural
hematoma from a fall at his home
in 2017. Then in March 2019 Trebek announced his cancer diagnosis and acknowledged
it was usually fatal within six
months but pledged to try and beat the odds and continue
working as long as he could. He
taped periodic health updates afterwards mater-of-factly discussing he health.
having to wear a silver white wig on camera to cover for his chemo-therapy hair
loss, views saw little difference in Trebek’s daily work. But he confided to interviews that he was
often in intense pain suffering from
the effects of the disease itself, chemo-therapy, and immune system therapy. He sometimes despaired. But when he put
on one of his sharp suites, knotted
his natty tie, and strode confidently onto the set, “it
was like a switch turned on,” even if he barely made it back to his dressing room and writhed on the floor in agony.
spent the time at his long-time California home with his second wife of 30 years Jean
Currivan, a real estate project
manager. They had two children, Matthew
and Emily, and Trebek adopted his first wife’s daughter Nicky.
They were a close family and often traveled the world together for
enjoyment and in support of his many world-wide charity causes. At home
Trebek was more comfortable in jeans,
chambray work shirts, boots, and battered baseball style caps. He was a master do-it-yourselfer who completed many projects and renovations on
his home. He built and his final moths restored a bench swing on his patio where he would sit for hours with his
the Covid restrictions relaxed, Trebek returned to social distancing redesigned set in August to tape his 36 season of
shows. He and his producers and staff
all new it would probably be his last although he just signed a contract renewal
through 2022. In one of the question and
answer sessions he regularly held with his audiences one of them asked him who
he wanted to replace him, “Betty White,” he said without missing a beat. Earlier before his diagnosis but when his age
was coming into question, he had floated Meredith
Vieira who had hosted Who Wants to be a Millionaire as a gender smashing possibility. The producers may have tipped their hand
when at the beginning of the season they announced that all-time Jeopardy! Champ Ken Jennings had been signed in a new role as consulting producer and brand
ambassador, a hint that he might be warming
up in the bullpen.
pain and weakness, Trebek continued to tape shows until just two weeks before
his death. His last episode will be shown on December
25—Christmas Day. A week or two
of shows highlighting best work, it is likely that the program will return with
a new host after the first of the year.
returned to his beloved home and died just as he had hoped, sitting on the
swing, holding his wife’s hand, and “watching the horizon.”